In communications, authenticity matters. A lot. Our authenticity meters are what make lawyers and car salesmen consistently despised over the years – and Congress currently. We all hate being lied to with a straight face – we don’t even like being fibbed to. We respect those that tell us the truth because it shows that they respect us. Mitt Romney has an authenticity issue, so does Newt Gingrich when he does events like this one (which I will deconstruct the value manipulations attempted there in the future), Obama too. They all are disingenuous in different ways – Romney has the problem of looking and acting like a spokesmodel – a little too polished for an Average American’s comfort – and then completing the role by saying whatever he thinks the customers want. Newt seems to say what he means but in his election bid, is fully involved in the posturing and manipulations of crowds and media to suit his cause – he can only “open up” when it seems it would serve his polling and/or the Republican establishment. Obama seems to speak from the heart and brain but when it comes to following through on his rhetoric, his resolve dissolves. His “compromises” undermine the principles he established verbally. The end result? Not many of us can agree that any of those three politicians are genuinely authentic and are as good as their word; when you match up their deeds with their speech, the integrity gap becomes apparent.
Rick Santorum had authenticity going for him. I really do believe that he is a man of faith that lives by his beliefs, I believe he is a family man and doing something he feels called to do, but his slip about black people getting welfare showed some of his underlying perceptions – possibly racist leanings. All of these attributes still fit into a character that some Americans really admire and want (sadly even the potentially racist part). However, when Santorum was confronted about the racist part, his authenticity fell apart. He commented, “I don’t want to make black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money. I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money.” Quickly thereafter he back pedaled on the concept, saying that he indeed didn’t want African-Americans to be dependent on government – up to this point he might be guilty of not being pc but he is still authentic. His next move is what cracks that characteristic – he makes a planned statement, saying that he studied the footage of the rhetoric in question and decided that he did not say the word “black”. This is totally disingenuous and anyone who watches the footage can see that, Santorum would have gained more respect if he simply stood his ground and apologized by his lack of sensitivity and his implication that black people are the main food stamp recipients in this country; they’re not. The Kaiser Family Foundation puts black recipients at a total of 22% of medicaid benefits.
The dog whistles in politics today aren’t very quiet. Perhaps Santorum wants his audience to know something about what he thinks of African Americans, perhaps he wants to appease part of his audience because he thinks they believe certain stereotypes about black people, perhaps he said “blaah” and not “black”. It’s hard to believe that he did not intentionally address an issue that concerns African Americans and support programs – those sort of anti-government involvement speeches are standard. Then there’s also the comment while on CNSnews.com, “I find it almost remarkable for a black man to say no, we are going to decide who are people and who are not people”. This comment is in regards to whether or not a fetus should be considered a person under American law. This topic is something that Santorum is an activist on and is not fumbling around grasping at straws. He intentionally mentioned “black” this time and clarified himself later in a statement to CBSnews indicating that he was referring to the fact that black people were once not considered persons by the Constitution. In Santorum’s value system – and perhaps those of the CNSnew audience -who’s byline is “The Right News. Right Now” – these ideas are noble and moral. His argument equates the rights of fetuses to fully formed and breathing African Americans – something he may genuinely want to work for. I can’t fault him for his value system but I can point out how a different set of values makes his comments and the collection of them – unjust and immoral to others.
Justice and equality are contested concepts. What one person thinks is just and equal another might not. The values that Santorum keep coming back to relate to personal responsibility and God as the ultimate Authority. In fact, during the CNSnews.com interview done in January 2011, he specifically mentioned that he thought the Founding Fathers believed in God-given natural law which he shared a belief in and that it should be applied to contemporary policy issues. In this interview – where his words were not as guarded as on the election trail and he was among friends – Santorum showed what is really the difference between many social conservatives and everyone else: his concept of “God’s law” would overwrite any man made laws he disagreed with. For him – a devout evangelical Catholic – his idea of “God’s law” includes many principles that the Constitution might not. Indeed, ANY individual’s opinion of what is “God’s law” is not going to be a copy of the Constitution. The problem is that this country was founded by individuals – albeit with differing opinions – who agreed upon the Constitution. Any divergence from those principles goes against the foundation of this country. For many of us, the ultimate in patriotism is trying to keep our Constitution intact (and we have plenty of disagreement about that) – for him it is obeying his concept of God’s laws. Patriotism is a contested concept, there is no one image or definition we can all agree on.
Justice and equality are contested concepts too; what one person thinks is just and equal, another might not. The example here are the social safety nets, a.k.a. “entitlement programs”. Let’s just look at those two phrases. It’s easy to tell which term is preferable if you favor Medicaid, Food Assistance, and Social Security and which term does not. “Entitlement” is a negative term. It conjures up an image of someone who does not deserve what they are receiving; “Safety net” is a kinder word indicating that anyone could fall at some point and need to stay alive. These words matter. They make frames – that is paint pictures or draw from those already stored in our brains and some particular words stick there due to their emotionally charged nature. These trigger words and concepts can be manufactured. For those that recall the 80’s, the term “welfare queen” strikes a nerve in nearly everyone and we all have an opinion about it. It created a brand that meant something – it meant laziness, promiscuity, dishonesty, criminal behavior, and, yes, “uppityness”. This imagery still sticks with us today, 30 years later.
For some equality means restitution and reconciliation to the descendants of the slaves who’s toil, sweat, and blood built this wealthy nation. Without them, we would not be the superpower we are today. Restitution is not a crazy idea, it went a long way toward making the transition from Apartheid to Democracy in South Africa. For others equality means never having to consider a hiring quota when it comes to including minorities and women. Both have valid points but are coming from different perspectives and timeline considerations.
Being authentic is what happens when you naturally speak of your own values. There is something intangible that happens when we are being lied to and many times we can smell something fishy. Once that has happened, it is difficult to rebuild trust. Rather than risk being caught in a fib, it is better to be inelegant and ignorant of details – participating in a discussion solely coming from a place of values is more authentic than knowingly fudging the facts.